Tuesday, November 21, 2006

CAIRO

My line is never the right line. Everywhere, people in turbans and fezs, wearing hedjabs, burkas and galabayas move briskly along while we wait, passports and entry cards in hand. A pair of eyeglasses perched across a slit in a mound of black cloth … I take it as an article of faith that there is a woman under there … seems to stare at me. I stare back. Her line shuffles forward. Mine doesn’t. Beyond the row of booths with their uniformed attendants, luggage carousels go around and around. Beyond that, beyond corners and doors, families, tourist agents, and taxi drivers wait—my daughter waits.

Cairo is our meeting point. After twenty-three hours of travel, there is this last line, the longest and slowest one of all. There’s no point in changing, though. As soon as I do, my new selection will stall. It’s a rule.

Robyn is there, outside the customs hall. Her hair is cut in a slightly bouffant page-boy style above tailored slacks and a back-belted jacket. “Beirut wasn’t all bad,” I say, after hugs and greetings, noting the fashionable clothes and hairdo.

“Great shopping,” she says with a grin for the incongruity. She’s been getting danger pay and getting it in one of the world’s most sophisticated cities. I laugh but not because there’s anything funny. It’s a sound of relief. She’s come out of a war zone alive one more time. She’s there in front of me, tangible, talking, with all ten fingers and ten toes.

Now, we’re launched on another excursion—for her a break before work in South Asia, for me relief from a Wyoming winter. Out we go, exiting the airport into the as-advertised pollution created by twenty-plus million people.

Cairo surprises by being relatively clean and attractive, trees with skinny trunks twisting toward whatever sky is visible on narrow streets, their canopies expanding to fill the sky above the many broad boulevards. Lines of cell-like shops, open shutters serving as display racks, spill into the streets, their neighborhoods jostling against bougainvillea-draped walls and wrought-iron balconies of French-style quartiers. Signs lead to English hotels. Minarets and domes dominate big hunks of skyline, proclaiming the power of Islam. Another god … Mammon … shines from bank fronts in polished copper or brushed aluminum, eyeing pockets not yet picked. His power is also evident along the river where high-rise, luxury hotels compete with extravagantly built office structures. There is wealth here. Great wealth alongside hurrying men in galabayas and slippers.

There is a lot of everything. We come to a round-about and enter the fray becoming another bit of flotsam, the melee of jostling cars, busses, and trucks, all vying for street space. At the center, a functioning fountain sprays water through sunflower spokes of aluminum. Around we go to be slung out the far side, passing a robed man with a broom sweeping the gutter, pushing desert sand and bits of paper toward a grate.

The Nile here lacks an expected width, is not the broad highway I imagined. It has been tamed and constrained since the Soviets built the high dam at Aswan, islands pushing up where the river once covered the land. For over four thousand years the river fed one empire after another. Now, it has been reduced to service as a recreational waterway, the lands it once fertilized built over by apartment buildings and streets, its inlets vivid with the triangular wings of feluccas, its banks are marked by the hulls of floating restaurants waiting for their dinner and lunch-time patrons.

Food is more palatable when eaten with a rocking motion?

From the wide double balcony of our Four Seasons’ suite, we watch the red of sunset as it fades, the accents of fushias and golds dimming until the sky is a graying, darkening salmon. Amber pinpoints, streetlights, flash into existence, speckling the Nile’s far bank. Below, candles appear on white linen tablecloths under awnings. Engines rumble to life, and the floating restaurants launch outwards on their evening cruises, making great splashes of light on the river. A low rumble of sound punctuated by frequent blares, hoots, and beeps of honking horns through the night tells of population density, of continuing life and commerce. Cairo does not sleep, barely pauses to take breath before the sun god is reborn, emerging from the vagina of the mother goddess to light a new day … that’s one of the stories, anyway.

Tomorrow … early … we’re off to Luxor. But tonight we nibble from small plates, enjoying the variety that mezza provides. We drink our wine, and catch up on Wyoming’s elections and Beirut’s reconstruction.

Tomorrow we’ll endure more lines. Tonight we enjoy Cairo.

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